Projected Fatal Overdoses in Buffalo Decline, Thanks to Community Efforts

By Kelly Burch 12/07/16

The efforts have had a dramatic effect, reducing overdose deaths from about 13 a week to about seven.

Image: 
A page from an Addictions Hotline brochure.
Erie County launched a 24-hour addiction hotline in August 2016 Photo via YouTube

It’s hard to find any good news when it comes to the opioid epidemic, but there is a sliver of encouragement coming from Buffalo, New York, where the number of overdoses this year is expected to be lower than the initial projection for 2016.

At the beginning of the year, opiate death rates were on pace to pass 500 deaths this year, but the rate has since slowed in Erie County, where Buffalo is located. Now, the county is expected to have about 330 deaths in 2016, according to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Early in the year, the county was plagued by deaths from fentanyl-laced heroin, which were killing up to 13 people each week. That prompted a new wave of community health initiatives, which seem to be working, according to Dr. Gale Burstein, Health Commissioner for Erie County.  

"We were experiencing in Erie County a public health crisis,” Burstein told Channel 2 News, referring to the first few months of the year. “We had too many people dying of drug-related overdose deaths. And we had to do something to stop it.”

Poloncarz declared a public health crisis in the county, uniting first responders, hospitals and public officials in the fight against opioid misuse. Efforts have included making naloxone more widely available, launching an addiction hotline, and training for the public on how to react to overdoses and addiction.

The efforts have had a dramatic effect, reducing overdose deaths from about 13 a week to about seven.

One of the most important strategies has been raising awareness of addiction at local hospitals, which has led to a reduction in opioid pain medicine prescriptions.

"They collectively developed these acute pain management guidelines,” Burstein said. “And so people going to emergency departments or urgent care centers now are not walking out with a month's supply of a narcotic pain medication. They're getting a three-day supply, if they're getting anything."

Overdoses in Erie County were still higher than previous years. In 2015, there were 256 opiate-related deaths, and in 2014 there were 127. Although this year’s projected total of 330 deaths is still significantly higher, public health officials like Burstein hope that the lower-than-projected overdose rates and the slowing of the rates this year signals a shift in the momentum of the opioid epidemic in upstate New York.

"Just one overdose death is too many, but we are seeing a significant trend downward,” she said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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